The Touring Machine

Personal Digital Assistance on the Business Trip to Enlightenment

Copyright 1998 by Wil McCarthy, all rights reserved.



I first met Gary Snyder the week of my divorce, and my early impressions of him were all resentful and ugly. Who was this guy, and why was he trying to be my friend? But we got drunk and sang karaoke together and woke up on the same smelly floor amid ferret droppings and pizza boxes, and became tight. Gary is the world's smartest bum, and also quite possibly its most paranoid. His two main hobbies are collecting gear and licenses for every imaginable sort of human activity. He owns, for example, a license to drive triple-trailer trucks. Why? Because he owns a license for everything, because that way he can do whatever he wants. Fly, sail, dive, blow things up...

Nancy was his stewardess girlfriend back then, and now she's his direct-to-video movie producer wife. I love them both dearly.

Morning was late and hurried, but I did have time to look around a bit. Strange to see my friends' house for the first time after knowing them for so many years. It's very, well, country. The neighborhood is full of run-down horse barns and small cottages on relatively big lots. It's nice, though.

Per agreement, Gary chaufferred me to Lady Jayne's Books and Comics, a small hole-in-the-wall store with more comics, games, trading cards and bric-a-brac than actual books. They had a big sign up welcoming me, though, and were cheery and enthusiastic about my presence. Gary had to run off to work, though, and returned in time to pick me up at signing's end. One customer, sigh. All the foot traffic was for cards and comic books and choose-your-own adventure books.

Next stop was University Books, the final stop on my tour. Finish with a bang, I always say; I started reading to a crowd of six, finished with a crowd of eight, and answered questions for about half an hour, by which time the audience had grown to twelve, which is as big a solo audience as I'd ever had outside of Denver. Signed many books afterward, chatted with the staff, and then watched them enthusiastically hand-selling my books even before I'd left the building. I think I'll be doing well at this store!

I'd often wondered how exhausted and disgusted I'd be when all this was over, but the day before this, to my surprise I'd been feeling a sense of incompleteness, of not being quite ready for the tour to be over. As I marched out of University Books, though, I felt neither relief nor sorrow, but simply a sense that I'd set out to do something ambitious, and had now accomplished it. Like finishing a jigsaw puzzle or something, you know?

After the signing, Gary and I went to the movies to see ESCAPE FROM L.A., for which we were later to take some static -- of all the things to do and see in Seattle... What can I say, my tourism glands were all but dry. The last riff of the day came when Cathy and Nancy and three of Gary's friends met us at a local brewpub called the Powerhouse (decorated with various high- voltage electrical doodads) for a "church meeting." Turns out they are all ordained ministers in the mail-order Universal Life Church, which is a joke organization and yet also a real religion, whose clergy are entitled to perform weddings and such. For this particular sect, church meetings consist of eating cheeseburgers, drinking beer, and talking about how things were going. God is everywhere, they say, so it makes as much sense as anything else, to look for him at the bottom of a glass.

The next day was set aside for sailing. What to say? Gary's parents own a 25-foot sloop, the Native Son, with a furnished hold that could sleep four comfortably, and with a little imagination possibly as many as eight. We started out wet, motoring out of the harbor and into Puget Sound as fog alternated with rain to soak us down. Nancy kept apologizing for the weather, but I assured her this was exactly what I'd expected of a sailing trip out of Seattle. Cathy, whose glasses kept fogging up and ruining her vision, was somewhat less enthusiastic.

Anyway, this was my first time sailing in anything larger than a rowboat, and Gary had to show me how to attach and raise the sails, how to rig the lines, et cetera, and with this activity and the gentleness of the waves, I gradually lost my fear of pitching over the railing and into the cold water. We did manage to tear the mainsail, though, a horizontal rip about three quarters of the way up. No big deal, Gary assured us. We didn't even particularly need it. The motor was killed, and soon a breeze kicked up, filling the jib sail, and we were on our way. We sailed downwind for a while, until Gary assured us that tacking up into the wind was a lot more exciting. So Cathy and I learned how to work the lines and winches, while Gary steered and called out instructions. Soon, we were tacking, and Gary was right -- it was more exciting. Cathy's nervousness began to fall away, and the corners of her mouth curved up higher and higher.

As if in sympathy, the sun decided to break through after all. The rain and the fog dried up, and within half an hour the sky had gone rather amazingly clear. Our upwind goal had been the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, of interest to me because its predecessor, the "Galloping Girdie," was the most famous structural failure in the history of civil engineering, featured in nearly every textbook I'd ever owned. We didn't make it, though, because the wind died shortly after the rain did. So we tacked back and forth in a lazy, half-mile-an-hour zig-zag for several hours, watching the seals and seagulls play, watching the other boats give up one by one and motor back to port. Gary, unable to help himself, picked up the Brain and started fiddling with it, exploring its various features. "I want one of these," he kept saying. "I really, really want one." When I explained the infra-red trick at Worldcon, he went me one better and said that, properly programmed, the IR port could be used to disable car alarms and open keyless entry doors. "I do have software to make a Universal Learning Remote Control out of it," I admitted, "but I've never used it. I've never used an actual learning remote, so I'm not even sure what one is."

"I want one," he said again. Well, okay, fine, go and get one.

Finally we put the toys away, got serious and aimed the bow at our actual destination, a restaurant and bar across the sound called the Tides Tavern, which had its own dock as well as a parking lot. A sail-up bar! Our progress toward it was painfully slow, though, so eventually we took the torn mainsail down and detached it, then reefed the jib (if that's the right terminology) and kicked up the motor. At half throttle, we made it to Tides in a lot better time, a little under half an hour. What fun! We leaped off the boat and tied her off, then marched up the gangway and ordered some nachos and cider. Then, when we were done, we settled up, unmoored, and leaped back aboard again to motor for home. Boy, did Cathy and I enjoy the feeling of belonging, however briefly, to the yacht set!

Things were going fine until we'd gotten about halfway across the sound, when suddenly the motor died. Gary and I exchanged glances, because we'd already verified that both fuel tanks were half full. Mechanical failure? Within munutes he had the engine compartment opened up, and were black to the elbows with engine grease. Gary was of the opinion that such a sudden failure must be electrical in nature (he being an electrical engineer), while I was betting on the fuel pump, until I learned there was no fuel pump, that the system was gravity fed. Something in the fuel line, then? Something in the filter?

I noticed the coolant line was dripping, and Gary fiddled with it for a moment before it broke off cleanly in his hand. Uh oh! The line had been attached with an iron pipe nipple, which had distintegrated into rusty snarls, and without it there was no obvious way to reconnect the hose to the engine block. So now we had two problems! I should note that we were no more than half a mile from land, and were being passed every few minutes by friendly boats, so there was no danger of actually being marooned or anything. But there was our pride to worry about, and anyway we had dinner reservations at the Space Needle's revolving restaurant, and damned if we were going to miss that.

So we got to work on the electrical theory, and Gary did indeed determine that the spark plugs weren't sparking. So we moved step by step, using eyes and ears and a halogen light to test every component between plugs and battery. Strangely, all seemed fine, and when Gary put a screw in one of the spark plug wires, grounded it against the engine block and hit the starter, we saw sparks. Hmm. "Unless all four of these plugs went bad at the exact same moment," I told Gary, "the engine would not have died so smoothly. We've got sparks, so it's got to be something with the fuel. The only two things an engine really needs are sparks and fuel."

"And air," Gary said. "Where's the carbeurtator on this thing?" We hunted for a few moments before finding it... right under the severed coolant line, with two centimeters of sea water filling the air intake. Sea water does not burn! So we only had one problem after all, and we quickly decided that a smaller diameter hose could take the place of the original pipe nipple, if one of us held it in place manually against the pressure. A detailed search of the hold, however, revealed only a weird, venturi- shaped piece with mouths of different size at either end. It would have to do, we decided. Once the carb and cylinders had been dried out, we'd have a solution best characterized as "crappy but workable." It'd limp us back to port, at least.

At this point, though, Nancy leaned her head below and said, "Um, guys, we're back in the harbor! Better decide pretty quick what we're doing!"

We looked up. The women had managed to take hold of the very limited breeze to sail us over a mile while Gary and I had worked, and now, already, we were back in the home port, and our half-mile-an-hour speed no longer seemed so slow!

Cursing amusedly, Gary leaped to the deck, calling out instructions to the rest of us. No engine, no mainsail, no brakes, no kidding, we were taking her back into her berth on the jib sail alone. Cathy and Nancy stood by with mooring lines, while Gary worked the tiller and I prepared to drop the sail on command, and use feet and boat bumpers to keep us from colliding with the boat in the next berth over. Gary's steering was impressively precise as he navigated a pair of right-angle turns. "Okay, drop it!" he called out, and I popped the line free of its winch and let the jib sail come flopping down on top of Cathy and Nancy. Then everyone was moving, jumping, calling out, and we really were going to hit the boat next to us, and so I leaped out onto it and pushed hard on the Native Son, shoving her back toward the dock.

And then it was done. We were moored, safely and soundly, in exactly the right spot, nose-in but otherwise perfect. So how about that?

"Wow, sailing is so cool!" I said, to no one in particular. "It's too bad we live in Colorado. I could really get into this!"

Gary gave a nonchalant shrug. "So get into it, Wil. Get into everything. Life is an adventure."

And that seems as fitting a way to close as any other.


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